Top questions and tips for interviewing scientists

Share this:

Got an interview with one of your charity’s researchers coming up? In this blog, I share some ideas for questions you can ask and how you make the most of your conversation when you’re interviewing scientists. 

Putting together a good set of questions for an interview depends on knowing exactly what you want to get from the interview. Be more specific than ‘learn more about Dr Bloggs and their research’. 

Whether it’s for a blog, or recording for a video or podcast, or even some background information, plan it out as much as you can. Think about what the finished product is going to be and where the quotes (or info from the researcher) are going to fit. Then figure out what you would ideally like them to say, before working backwards to figure out the question(s) that lead to a response you’re aiming for. 

In this article, we’ll have a look at different elements that you could consider as part of your interview. I’ve highlighted some suggested questions throughout this article in bold. These questions are really just guides, not prescriptions. I’m still learning, I’m not an expert interviewer (yet), and you need to find a way to ask these questions that feel right to you. 

A conversation, not a grilling

two people discussing a project

An important mistake I’ve made in when speaking to researchers is to treat it like a job interview, with pre-formed questions and specific points you want to cover. Really, you want it to feel more like a conversation you’d have with a friend. It takes a bit of practice to get this right, and there’s a lot of factors which influence this. Think of the questions more as prompts or conversation starters, rather than a checklist. 

In FilmKit, CharityComms’ guide on charity videos, freelance filmmaker Mike South provides a few suggestions to help it feel more like a relaxed conversation, as opposed to an awkward chat or a job interview. One key bit of advice Mike provides in FilmKit is to respond appropriately to what they’ve said. Ask questions which logically follow what’s said rather than jumping around topics as if you’re going through a checklist.

Probe a little

One aspect of a natural conversation is that one person will ask short ‘follow-up questions’ which act as responses to what the other person has said. Things like “what do you mean by that?” or “why was that?”, or “how did that come about?”, or even “wow, tell me more!”

These only come naturally if you’re listening to the other person, and you’re genuinely interested in what they say. Listen, and respond as you would while chatting with a friend.

Summarising their research

Say you’re interviewing a scientist about a recent paper they’ve published. I would avoid getting researchers to explain that paper in-depth, for two reasons. Firstly, don’t waste time in the interview getting details you can read in the paper. Secondly, they may provide a long-winded response which will be unusable for something destined for a general lay audience. And there are other ways to get any juicy or surprising details out of the work (more on that later). 

Instead, you could ask them to summarise the key findings, to provide the ‘take-home message’, or a ‘soundbite’ for the work. You could even ask them to provide that – “What’s the take-home message of this research?” or “if you had to summarise this research into a snappy soundbite, what would it be?”

The Open Notebook, a fantastic website for science writers, suggests something along the lines of “How might I sum up these results in one or two sentences?”. If they end up going into three sentences, that’s alright – the point is brevity.

Understand the context

The answers to these questions could be used to ‘set the scene’ in whatever you’re writing/putting together. It helps to set out the problem that’s being solved by this research. 

  • What did we know about ___ before this work?
  • How were we doing ___ before?
  • Why did this research need to be done?

You could also follow up the answers up with questions to understand how other people saw their work. The answer might reveal whether it was a controversial idea, or something long overdue – either way, it’s a useful context. For example:

  • How did people respond when you told them what you were doing?
  • Did other scientist take some convincing of your approach?
  • Did anyone disagree with what you were doing?

Moments

Writing is at its most convincing and powerful when it deals with specifics. 

“We discovered that Protein X interacts with Protein Y.” is… ok. 

But compare that to something like… “It was a windowless room, so I didn’t really notice when it got to 2am. I was about to shut down the microscope, but I thought I’d just check the last sorry plate I had in the incubator. Then I saw what we’d be waiting for – a little yellow fluorescent blob. Protein X interacts with Protein Y. I jumped up and punched the air so quickly, I broke my little finger on the air-conditioning unit.” 

The sensory details and the specifics of the second make the story much more interesting to read. You only get those kinds of details by asking for them. 

Thinking about dramatic elements of the story: there’s a start, middle, and end.  

Ask them to take you back to the beginning, the instigating event which started them on their journey:

  • Can you take us back to the beginning – when did this study/project come about?
  • How did the idea come about?
  • When did you get involved in this work?
  • What was the first step you made in this project?

You could ask them about the quest, and the struggles they had to overcome:

  • How did the work go? Was it all plain sailing?
  • What was the hardest part of this project?
  • Were there any setbacks?
  • What hurdles did you have to overcome?

André Spiteri, freelance fintech copywriter, suggests explicitly asking for failures: 

Finally, you could ask them about the climax, the moment of truth where they make the discovery:

  • What was the first sign that you had got the results you’d been hoping for?
  • When did you realise that your plan had worked?

You could even ask them questions that someone might ask anyone about good news. Questions like “Who did you call first to tell them the good news?”, “Did you go out and celebrate?” “What did your parents think?”

The Open Notebook suggests probing to get super specific about the details because you never know where they might lead you. For example, if they mention they heard something on a phone call, you could follow-up with a question like: “Did you get the phone call when you were sitting in the office or were you somewhere else?”

They might say, ‘Oh yeah, actually, funny story …’ and then who knows where that could go? 

Emotional content

Emotions are the best way to connect with an audience. And despite the stereotype of being cold-hearted, objective robots guided only by rational thought, scientists are in fact people too – real people, with real emotions! (Surprise!)

Throughout your interview, try and tease out how they were feeling at any given moment. Short follow-up questions like “How did that make you feel?” or “What did you think about that?” can help as prompts. 

Phil Marsh, Stories Manager at Age UK, gets people to put themselves back in the moment with this clever wording: 

It can be tricky to get people to open up, and they’ll only do so if they feel comfortable. This is why we mentioned earlier that’s important to treat the interview like a conversation. One of the recommendations in the CharityComms FilmKit guide is to respond to things resonate with you. And share why that resonates with you. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience to them you could talk about if you feel it’s appropriate. 

Other questions which have worked for me include:

  • How does it feel to have helped make ___ happen?
  • What have you learnt along the way?

Freelance copywriter Megan Rose gets her interviewees to reflect on why they do what they do.

Implications

If the interview is going to be used in something you’re producing for a charity, you’ll likely want to show the impact of the work will have, or what implications it has for the future. 

Again, as I mentioned before, I wouldn’t ask them to “describe the findings”, because a) you could just read the paper, and b) you might end up with a 20-minute lecture. 

Starting with questions like “What was the most unexpected/surprising thing you discovered?” or “what was the most important finding for you?” – (and then following up with why that was the case) – could reveal something much more interesting. 

Alternatively, you could ask about what other people think of the results, such as “How did people respond to your findings?” or “was anyone shocked about what you discovered?”.

Of course, you’ll be wanting to know “what difference will this make to patients/people living with xyz, or “what do you hope for the future?” And those are fine questions to ask. You might end up with “in the long-term, this could lead to a new treatment for …”, which is good, but a bit vague and bland. 

Questions like “What difference is this work making right now?” and “What’s the next step from here?”, help you connect the dots between this project or discovery, and the future. 

Charity messages

If you’re producing something for a charity, don’t miss the opportunity to get some general messages which could be useful to support marketing and fundraising in the future. This could include something like: 

  • What would you say to supporters who’ve funded this work?
  • Why should our charity’s supporters get behind work like this?
  • What difference has the charity’s support made in your research?”

The answers they give can be used in the immediate thing you’re working on or be kept in the bag for when you need a good quote in future (with permission, of course). 

Just one more thing…

The interview is over, you’ve said your thankyou’s, but before you hang-up or leave, ask one more question: along the lines of “Any last words?” or “Is there anything we haven’t talked about?”

A question like this has worked well for me more than a few times when they’re feeling a bit more relaxed, and let their guard down. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘The Columbo Question’.

Another prompt you to ask at the end (or even at the beginning) is something about your location. If you’re face-to-face in their office (or even in a video call) have a look around and see if something catches your eye. Maybe a framed photo, an interesting piece of art, a fishing rod, for example, and ask them about it. It might lead to an interesting conversation, and if nothing else it’s a nice relaxed way to start or end an interview. 

Further reading:

Do you have any suggestions that I’ve missed? Get in touch, either by email, or on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Share this: